Three Posts on a Website Outside Westminster, London

I’m not really a daily newspaper man, I haven’t got the time to plough through all the gossip, prejudice and scaremongering. I prefer to pick up on the headlines from the BBC News website and read something more considered with a weekly. This morning though, I couldn’t help but stop in my tracks with three stories on the site that seemed connected.


 

The first story concerned a council in Scotland, which is looking at providing free school meals for 365 days a year for those on low incomes. In making its proposal, the council cited research that somewhere between two-thirds and three quarters of parents with incomes under £15,000 skip meals during the school holidays to make sure their children eat.

Has it really come to this? That people are so poorly-off that they are prepared to literally starve themselves so their children can eat? Whether this is because of the state of the benefits system, or because people are unable to find work that allows them to earn enough to keep body and soul together, is probably open to debate. What isn’t is that this is surely a damning indictment of us as a society, supposedly the fifth richest in the world, and how we organise our wealth.

And it’s not just those on low incomes who are suffering. The second story was about middle-income earners (defined as earning between £22,200 and £30,600) in the 25-34 age band who, it seems, are finding it almost impossible to buy a roof over their heads. It seems that in 1995-96, 65% of those in this bracket were buying their own home, just ten years later less than half this number, 27%, are; with the biggest drop being in the supposedly affluent south-east.

Clearly, something in our economy, and indeed in our society, is going awry if we’re leaving so many behind. The third story was slightly more uplifting, in that it identified some of the causes for these problems, even if the solution it proposed may require some deeper analysis. It spoke of a report from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), which has put forward the idea of giving everyone under the age of 55 a sum of £10,000 split over two years, as a prelude to a possible Universal State Wage, a popular idea in economic circles at the moment.

The plan is to help UK citizens through the 2020s as, in the words of the report: ‘automation replaces many jobs, climate change hits and more people face balancing employment with social care’. The report recognises we are facing a fundamental disruption in how we organise our society and economy, fed from a number of sources, including demographic, technological and climatic shifts, none of which are going away – think Artificial Intelligence doing half the work doctors currently do, self-driving cars, wealth being created by a handful of people and organisations like the banks and Google.

Significantly, the report highlights that simply tweaking the systems we have now (think Band-Aid extra billions for an NHS clearly unsustainable in its current form, modest pilot projects in how we deliver social care, offering financial incentives to shrinking firms to take on apprentices), simply won’t cut it. What’s needed is some transformative thinking, a national discussion - not a slanging match like the Brexit referendum, and not conducted through the newspapers with out of date agendas. Yes, think of it, some adult, grown up presentation of the options before us.

This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing us. How do we organise our resources and people in such a way that they can feed themselves, be fulfilled and have a dignified old age? It should be an exciting time, but it isn’t, and why? Because our leaders continue to believe that the future will just be an incremental variant on the present – it won’t. They take comfort in looking backwards, to what was; rather than looking forwards, to what could be.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with the Brexit debacle. If anyone ever needed a case study in wishful looking back, then look no further. Our intellectual energy and political leadership (such as it is) is tied up and totally moribund trying to deliver something which was, in my view, only a symptom of something much, much deeper. Our politicians are busy fighting and tying themselves up in knots trying to solve the wrong problem, driving us back fifty years rather than thinking about the next fifty.

And that, dear reader, is why reading daily newspapers is just too depressing.

Oh, and if you haven't gone to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri yet, what are you waiting for?

 

Published: Feb 16 2018
 

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